‘Barbecue’ vs. ‘Cookout’: What Race Has to Do With It

Race Manners: Terminology for outdoor cooking is where culture, region and meat collide. Here’s what the word you use for your gathering says about who you are and where you’re from.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published June 4, 2014.

Dear Race Manners:

I’m counting on you to settle this debate once and for all: the cookout versus the barbecue. This is obviously especially important during this time of year, since I recently fell victim to a cookout masquerading as a barbecue over the Memorial Day holiday. I got various invites to barbecues, only to show up and see hot dogs and hamburgers as the only meat on the menu. 

This is not a barbecue!!

I will say that I am black and from the South. The hosts of these “barbecues” (which took place in Washington, D.C.) were neither. My mother tells me this was the issue. It seems that black folk and most Southern folk understand barbecues to be defined as outdoor grilling affairs that must include chicken and ribs and may include fish. Anything else is merely a cookout.

Am I right? Is this a race thing? A culture thing? Can I get a witness? I got caught slippin’ once this summer, but I will be asking for clarity before RSVPing to future invites, lest I be disappointed again. Thank you so much for your prompt attention to this urgent issue. —Cookout Controversy

Yes to all of the above.

Yes, “barbecue” has a traditional, agreed-upon definition common to many Americans. Yes, that definition has layers of cultural and racial history. Also, yes to getting a witness.

The Witness

I asked Michael W. Twitty–who describes himself as “a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African-American foodways and parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South”—to weigh in on your question.  If you were looking for someone as passionate about this topic as you are, you’re in luck. Meat matters to him. History matters to him. And he couldn’t agree with you more.

The Definition

Twitty is insistent that a “real” barbecue has some requirements. Simply inviting friends over and cooking outdoors won’t cut it.

“A barbecue has to take several hours to better part of a day to cook,” he says. “I need to see some wood, charcoal or something to cook the meat low and slow. A cookout is different—it’s not a long, drawn-out process; there’s no ritual there. And don’t even talk to me if you have a gas grill.”

So we have the barbecue basics: charcoal or wood and a “low and slow” cooking process (which, by definition, involves something more than hot dogs and hamburgers).

Once you meet that baseline, there’s some flexibility, mostly based on geography. Twitty says he can predict where you’re from based on what kind of meat you’re talking about cooking: “If I hear brisket, I’m hearing Texas or Oklahoma. If I’m hearing pork, I’m hearing the majority of the South. Ribs? Central South. Whole hog? Carolina. Chicken is ubiquitous. Fish and game and goat and stuff—that’s very much the edge of the South: Florida, Texas, Georgia. But it all has a common origin.”

The Culture Thing

That origin is Southern culinary tradition, which Twitty calls “a co-created culture that comes out of the collision of African, European and Native American culture.”

So your mom was right to attribute your cookout miscommunication in part to where you grew up. People of all ethnicities from the South (or other places heavily influenced, thanks to migration, by Southern cooking) would have had the same shocked reaction you had when you arrived at your friends’ homes and discovered what was being served under the name “barbecue.” Just think of BBQ Pitmasters. Lots of enthusiasm for traditional barbecue of the type Twitty describes there. Not a whole lot of brown faces. So, to be clear, this is as much about place as it is about race.

The Black Thing

But how did barbecue get its start in this country? Black people.

“Barbecue is definitely a part of African-American culture,” says Twitty. (Mind you, he says, “people mess up phenotype and culture,” and he’s talking specifically about the black experience in America versus ethnicity.)